Author Umino Tsunami Portrays Marriage as a Career in “Nigehaji”Family Society
The protagonist Moriyama Mikuri of Nigeru wa haji da ga yaku ni tatsu (The Fulltime Wife Escapist; often shortened to Nigehaji) possesses what seem like highly marketable traits—a graduate degree and certification as a clinical psychologist—but remains unemployed. She secures a job with a temporary staffing agency only to be laid off and left stranded, a 25-year old woman with no prospects for a career. The story is set in 2012, when jobs were scarce in Japan and large companies would only hire new college graduates. Mikuri’s plight, then far from unusual, represents the situation of Japanese women workers even today.
Mikuri finally, with the help of her father, gets a job as a housecleaner. Her employer is Tsuzaki Hiramasa, a graduate of the prestigious Kyoto University and a systems engineer, a 36-year old virgin who shows little emotion, rejects unnecessary interference in his life, and examines everything with a detached logic. He is, in other words, a typical professional bachelor, a very real and common type in contemporary Japan.
If she is going to be a housekeeper, she will be the best there is, decides Mikuri, and she throws herself into her job with a fierce zeal for perfection. Hiramasa is impressed; gradually a bond of trust is forged between the two. One day, however, Mikuri’s parents announce that they are moving to the countryside. Left to her own devices without a place to call home, Mikuri plots a desperate plan to get Hiramasa to allow her to switch to being a live-in housekeeper. To overcome the stigma that would ensue if she just moved into a bachelor’s apartment, Mikuri proposes the two enter into a “contract marriage” in which Hiramasa will “employ” Mikuri directly as his “wife” and will pay her for doing the laundry, cleaning, and preparing his meals. (In the TV drama, Hiramasa pays Mikuri a monthly “salary” of ¥194,000). Their marriage will not be registered, and they must sleep in separate beds. A bit confused but overwhelmed by Mikuri’s fervent appeal, Hiramasa agrees to the strange arrangement. As the story continues through a series of episodes, what was once a clear-cut employer-employee relationship gradually morphs into a joint partnership of two CEOs.
We asked Umino Tsunami where she got the idea of a “contract marriage.”
“It just seemed to me that marriage works better if you think of it as a job rather than as being in love. When two people are in love, they hold certain expectations of each other, and before they know it, they’re compelled to take on the roles that society has assigned to them. You’re supposed to be a mind-reader of sorts, knowing what to do without your partner having to tell you—but never going too far, to avoid being scolded for overstepping boundaries. You get stuck in a rut, too afraid to complain. The result is that you never talk things through.
“But if you think of marriage as a job, you can be more businesslike in your approach. People have been made to think that marriage should be romantic, full of love, but I wonder about that. Just think, for example, about your best friend. Maybe that person was someone who just happened to sit near you in school. You became friends, and your friendship has continued for 30 years. There’s no reason marriage can’t be like that. You meet, you like each other, you start living together, and over time a kind of love grows between you. That kind of approach opens up so many more opportunities. These were my thoughts as I was writing Nigehaji. And so many people have said this is precisely the kind of marriage they’d like to have.”
An Exploitation of Love
Mikuri’s and Hiramasa’s “contract marriage” is actually not so different than a traditional arranged marriage; Mikuri, after all, meets Hiramasa because her father arranges her position with him. This aspect caught the attention of at least one viewer of the television drama, a woman in her eighties, says Umino.
“This woman told me, ‘Our marriages were like that.’ She said the way the two are so polite with each other reminded her of how married couples behaved with each other when she was young. It’s true, the fact that love is not what brings my two characters together is very much like an arranged marriage.”
There was one part of the drama, however, that this woman objected to, explains Umino. “In the scene were Hiramasa proposes to Mikuri right after he’s been laid off from his job, Mikuri is horrified because she thinks he is only proposing so that he can get out of paying her for doing the housework. She lashes out, saying, ‘What makes you think anything goes if there is love? I absolutely refuse to be exploited by love!’ Older women, like the one who spoke to me, tend to react negatively to the words, ‘exploited by love.’ ‘Why,’ they say, ‘does this young woman object to not being paid? Why is she so greedy? In my day we did everything without ever complaining.’ Actually, there are also some young full-time housewives who raise the same objection. ‘We’re getting along just fine in our marriage,’ they say, ‘Why is the girl so greedy?’ And, well, of course, there are some women with the opposite reaction, who applaud Mikuri’s assertion with glee.”
There was a time when it was considered shameful to expect to be rewarded for dedicating oneself to another. And that sentiment still exists to an extent, even today.
“There’s still an assumption that a good wife takes care of housework and childcare all by herself. I do wish people would be more willing to outsource some of the work—you know, hire a babysitter or a housecleaner. There’s nothing wrong with getting help.”
Wan ope, meaning “one-person operation,” refers to a single employee being expected to handle everything in a shop, such as on the late-night shift in fast food shops. Companies that operate this way are blacklisted as exploiters of labor, but when it comes to the average household, this exploitation is somehow perceived as a virtue. Treating marriage as a job is a way to expose this hypocrisy.
In the afterword to the last volume of the series, Umino writes, “This ended up a story about a curse.” There is a scene in the story where Mikuri’s 50-something aunt, Yuri, talks about this “curse.” Yuri recalls a rival in love half her age scoffing at her for being too old. “There’s something to be said for being young, you know,” says the woman. But Yuri shoots back, “That prospect of age that you feel has no value is your future, too. . . . It’s no fun to become what you once derided. . . . You need to escape from that curse.” Nearly all Japanese are under this curse, the common assumption permeating society that youth is to be valued above all else.
“There’s the curse of age, and there’s the curse that dictates what men and women should be like. By writing a story about a curse, I like to think I’ve opened up discussion on something that was simmering within all of us. That’s a good thing because once you know what you are dealing with, you can do something about it. In the afterword to Volume 3, I wrote: ‘Maybe it isn’t the normal way of seeing things, but, personally, I think there are several doors we could open. . . . I like to think that I’ve given my readers a glimpse of what is beyond this particular door.’ Mikuri uses her creativity and imagination to discover a number of doors, and one just happens to be the door to a contract marriage. There are so many things that we would find easier to deal with if someone else made our decisions for us, but telling someone that you’re fine with anything is just forcing them to decide something for you. Life is a continuum of tiresome things, and love is perhaps the most tiresome of all. But we need to tackle these tiresome matters head on and take pleasure in the process. That makes life so much more enjoyable.”
By “doors,” Umino is referring to novel ideas. One is Mikuri’s suggestion that if marriage and having children are preventing women from advancing their careers, they could have their first child while they are still in high school— before they launch careers and when they have more free time to deal with the distraction.
“Today, if a high school girl becomes pregnant, she is generally expelled from school. She hasn’t committed a crime, but she’s treated as if she has and deprived of her educational opportunities as a consequence. That also makes it hard for her to get a job later. But just think: If everyone pitched in to help you raise your child in high school, boys could also participate. And that’s a kind of education, I believe. Girls are able to continue learning and will later be able to continue working. Maybe it seems like science fiction, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to at least suggest the possibilities.”
Mikuri’s ideas know no bounds. If same-sex marriage is legalized, she says, “People who are simply friends, not lovers, could also live together as partners.” Regarding childcare, she proposes a system for taking off half days. She calls it a “thank you system,” in which a husband and wife can each reserve time just for themselves, with one taking off from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm and the other from 3:00 pm to 9:00 pm.
Marriage as a Measure to Save Men
There was one thing that Umino learned in writing Nigehaji that really surprised her.
“Readers interpret my writings in different ways. There are even some who think Nigehaji is a work in praise of the institution of marriage. Local governments have actually invited me to speak on the subject of how to counteract Japan’s declining birthrate. Once, when I suggested that they should institute measures that would make it easier for unmarried women to raise their children, the response was that would be ‘difficult,’ As they explained why, it dawned on me that the government’s approach to solving the declining birth rate was to provide a lifeboat for men who are unable to marry.
“The officials I spoke to complained that it was hard to get women to participate in events meant to bring young men and women together. I told them all they had to do was find men with high incomes and the women would come, but they demurred. Their intent, they explained, was to find wives for men who were having a hard time finding a marriage partner. But what kind of woman is going to want to marry a man who’s so desperate? What is the appeal for the woman? Somehow these officials failed to note that in Nigehaji Mikuri is paid a salary for her housework.
“Men are told to ‘act like a man,’ which I think is a hard burden to bear. Frankly, the best thing is to get rid of our assumptions of how men and women should act. And to do that we need to be like Mikuri, speak our minds and become ‘tiresome’ people. When lone individuals buck the system, they are taken down in derision, but if we all attack the system together, it will have to change,” says Umino.
There are diverse interpretations of Nigehaji and its message, but the manga’s portrayal of marriage as a job has helped to clarify—and offer solutions to—a number of problems of our society, including the “curse” of the conventional Japanese perception of marriage. We have much to do to make this fiction a reality so that we may better enjoy our lives.
Manga artist. Born in Hyōgo Prefecture. Published first manga, Otsukisama ni onegai (Wishing on the Moon) in 1989. Later works include the manga series, Kaiten Ginga (Rotating Galaxy), the historical manga Kōkyū (Inner Palace), and Shōkōjo (Little Princess Twinkle), a science-fiction version of the American children’s novel Little Princess. Nigeru wa haji da ga yaku ni tatsu (The Fulltime Wife Escapist), serialized in the Kōdansha magazine Kiss from 2012, was awarded the Kōdansha Manga Award in the shōjo division in 2015.
(Originally published in Japanese on November 2, 2018. Reporting and text by Okajima Kaori; editing by Power News. Banner photo: From the manga Nigeru wa haji da ga yaku ni tatsu. © Umino Tsunami/Kōdansha.)